Tuesday, 22 October 2013

New York: Frick Collection

A Private Collection turned Public.

View of the Frick Mansion, Frick Collection.
Living Hall, Frick Collection.
Some museums are so large that walking around them is little more than taking inventory of the objects within. In the case of the Frick Collection the scale is much smaller and therefore the experience is more manageable. Though there is much on view, the Frick can be walked around in a day since it is one museum, not many museums under one umbrella, as in the case of the Met. One museum, one individual, after whom it is named: Henry Clay Frick. That in itself creates a different perspective since the art is housed in rooms in a rich man’s house, and so there is more the sense of a more intimate set of pictures assembled by a private collector to adorn his townhouse rather than a museum showing the restive moves of a curator. At the Frick the pack is rarely shuffled, no sweeping re-hangs, or ambitious masterplans since great care is taken to preserve its original spirit. The word “blockbuster” is never used at the Frick and exhibitions are more subtle, more the equivalent of chamber music than grand symphonic concerts. If there is a comparable museum in the world it is probably the Wallace Collection in London which has many 18th century works like the Frick including Boucher and Fragonard. Frick obviously knew the Wallace Collection since he named rooms after the great rococo masters, Boucher and Fragonard. The Fragonard Room is one of the most famous spaces in the museum. Four paintings by the 18th century French master, executed for Mme de Barry, and complimented by sculpture of the same era by Clodion and Houdon give the room an almost aristocratic flavour. Then there is the LivingHall, previously Frick’s sitting room in which we’ll find an El Greco St Jerome over the fire place with other impressive portraits by Holbein hanging nearby, especially his Thomas More who looks ready to face down the devil himself. And we mustn’t forget in the same room one of the finest renaissance paintings in America: Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the Desert. We can only envy Frick having this beautiful painting to contemplate every morning. 

The Man behind the Museum: Henry Clay Frick. 

Henry Clay Frick

Berkman's attempt to assassinate Frick, as illustrated by W. P. Snyder in 1892, originally published in Harper's Weekly.
Though Posterity has rightly painted the portrait of a great collector, she hasn’t been able to lighten darker aspects of Frick’s personality. At one point Frick was voted the “most hated man in America” because of his ruthlessness in business dealings including union-breaking. By 1892 Frick had become so unpopular due to Pinkerton Detectives he had hired killing nine steelworkers that an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on his life by an anarchist. Henry Clay Frick (1849- 1914) from Pennsylvania founded the H.C. Frick and Company Coke Manufacturing Company and was Chairman of Carnegie Steel, a predecessor to U.S. Steel. His business interests did not stop there; he financed the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad and had vast holdings in real estate in Pittsburgh. In 1910 Frick purchased property at Fifth Avenue and 70th St, a mansion, which is now known as the Frick Collection. Frick lived a charmed life since in addition to evading the assassin’s bullet, his wife’s sprained ankle kept them from boarding the inaugural Titanic on its fateful voyage.

An Overview of the Old Masters in the Frick Collection.[1]
Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1657, Oil on canvas, 50,5 x 46 cm, purchased 1911, South Hall. 

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1658, oil on canvas, 133.7 x 103.8 cm, purchased 1906,  West Gallery.

El Greco, St Jerome, 1590-1600, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 95.3 cm, purchased 1905, Living Hall. 
The phrase “old master” seems particularly relevant here since we are dealing primarily with paintings from the renaissance to the mid nineteenth-century with the emphasis on the 17th and 18th century. Though far from a comprehensive survey of Italian renaissance art, the Frick does boast some fine gems. Of the pick of renaissance art, the best, arguably, are the Duccio and Piero della Francesca panels, Bellini’s St Francis, Holbein’s ThomasMore, and Titian’s Portrait of a Young Man.  The late renaissance and mannerist period sees a few allegories by Veronese which may or may not have some connection with the ones in the Met. The 17th century is represented well in this collection with the strongest holdings Dutch and Spanish. Pride of place here goes to Rembrandt’s glorious Self-Portrait and the enigmatic PolishRider (West Gallery), two out of several Rembrandts in the collection. There are also canvases by Hals and Hobbema in the same room. No visitor would want to miss the three Vermeers including Officer and Laughing Girl (West Gallery and South Hall). The Spanish 17th century is represented by three El Grecos, including the St Jerome (Living Hall). The 17th century French school is disappointing with a minor Claude and a disputed George de La Tour, (East and West Gallery).[2] The Flemish baroque is borne mainly on the shoulders of Van Dyck (7 works), but nothing by his master Rubens. The paintings of the rococo style have always served to give this collection a distinct decorative flavour. Boucher and Fragonard have their own rooms with the latter boasting four canvases from his “Progress of Love” series, which Frick purchased from J. P. Morgan. There are also individual works by 18th century artists like Watteau and Greuze, and outside France, Gainsborough (7 works), Reynolds (3 works), and Romney (2 works), not to mention the wealth of rococo sculpture strategically positioned to enhance the elegance of this century’s art.  Turning to the romanticism of the 19th century, the stress is English again with 4 Turners including the lyrical MortlakeTerrace: Early Summer Morning (Library). Also worthy of note is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral, one of three works by the artist. The French recover ground with works by Corot, Millet, Manet and Monet, Vétheuil in Winter in the North Hall. One school that isn’t much in evidence is the American unless you count the cosmopolitan Whistler who has no less than 5 works in the collection including the portrait of Lady Meux. More traditionally, there is the obligatory portrait of Washington, in the Library by Gilbert Stuart.

J.P. Morgan and the Frick. 

S.S. Titanic

J.P. Morgan meets the Press

Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Meeting, 1771, Oil on canvas, 318 x 215 cm, purchased fr J.P. Morgan, 1915, Fragonard Room. 
Another member of the “missing the Titianic” club was John Pierpont Morgan, a famous collector and business magnate credited with saving the U.S. banking system during the panic of 1907. Unlike Frick, Morgan was born into the elite, and according to the art historian Valentiner had no desire to use art to improve his social standing.”[3] He was also dissimilar to Frick in that he was more of a connoisseur of the decorative arts since he appreciated fine craftsmanship rather than “the conceptual pleasures of painting”, which of all the arts, interested him least. The remains of Morgan’s collection are divided between the Met, the WadsworthAthenaeum (Hartford) and the Frick. Morgan didn’t hobnob with connoisseurs like Berenson or dealers like Duveen, and though painting may have come low down on his list of priorities, he still landed big fish like Constable’s White Horse, Rembrandt’s Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts bought in 1943 and the Progress of Love panels by Fragonard in 1898 for £62,000, roughly $300,000.[4] These were eventually bought by from Morgan by Frick in 1915 and with the negotiation of Duveen various other objects like French enamels which reside in the room of the same name. Despite these losses, Morgan could claim a victory over collectors like Frick since he secured Raphael’s Colonna Altarpiece (now in the Met) and even a Raphael Madonna which had even eluded Mrs Gardner.  There are no Raphaels in the Frick Collection unless you count the enamel dish with a Judgment of Paris based on Raphael’s famous design.  


1)      View of the Frick Mansion, Frick Collection.

2)      Photo of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919).

3)      Edmund Tarbell, Study for Henry Clay Frick and his daughter, Helen (1888-1984), 1909.

4)      Berkman's attempt to assassinate Frick, as illustrated by W. P. Snyder in 1892, originally published in Harper's Weekly.

5)      Duccio, Temptation on the Mount, 1308-11, Tempera on wood, 43 x 46 cm, purchased 1927, Enamels Room.

6)      Piero della Francesca, Polyptych of St Augustine: St John the Evangelist or St Simon Zelotes, c. 1460, Tempera on panel, 132 x 58 cm, Bequest of John D. Rockefeller, 1961, Enamels Room.

7)      Giovanni Bellini, St Francis in the Desert, c. 1475-78, oil on panel, 124.1 x 140.5 cm, Living Hall, HC Frick Bequest.

8)      Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Sir Thomas More, 1527, oil on oak panel, 74.9 x 60.3 cm, Living Hall, H.C. Frick Bequest.

9)      Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, c. 1510-16, Oil on canvas, 82 x 71 cm, 82.2 x 71.1 cm, purchased 1915, H.C. Frick Bequest, Living Hall.

10)  El Greco, St Jerome, 1590-1600, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 95.3 cm, purchased 1905, H.C. Frick Bequest, Living Hall.

11)  Agnolo Bronzino,  Portrait of Ludovico Capponi, 1551, Oil on wood, 117 x 86 cm, West Gallery,

12)  Paul Veronese, Allegory of Wisdom and Strength, c. 1580, Oil on canvas, 214.6 x 167, 214.6 x 167 cm, purchased 1912, H.C. Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

13)  Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1658, oil on canvas, 133.7 x 103.8 cm, purchased 1906,  H.C. Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

14)  Frans Hals, Portrait of a Painter, early 1650s, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 82.9 cm, H. C. Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

15)  Anthony Van Dyck, Franz Snyders, c. 1620, 142.6 x 105.4 cm, purchased 1909, H.C. Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

16)  Rembrandt, The Polish Rider, 1655, oil on canvas, 116.8 x 134.9 cm, purchased 1910, West Gallery.

17)  Vermeer, Lady with Her Maidservant Holding a Letter, c. 1667, Oil on canvas, 89,5 x 78,1 cm, purchased 1919,  H. Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

18)  Francisco de Goya, The Forge, c. 1815-20, oil on canvas, 181.6 x 125.1 cm, purchased 1914, H.C. Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

19)  J.M.W. Turner, The Harbour at Dieppe, 182(6)?, oil on canvas, 173.7 x 225.4 c purchased 1914, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, West Gallery.

20)  Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1657, Oil on canvas, 50,5 x 46 cm, purchased 1911, H.C. Frick Bequest, South Hall.

21)  Ingres, Comtesse d’Haussonville, 1845, oil on canvas, 131.8 x 92.1 cm, purchased 1927, purchased by Frick Coll., 1927, North Hall.

22)  James McNeil Whistler, Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, oil on canvas, 1881-82, 193.7 x 93 cm, H.C. Frick Bequest, formerly East Gallery, but currently not on view.

23)  Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love (The Pursuit), 1771-73, oil on canvas, 318 x 215 cm, purchased fr J.P. Morgan, 1915, Fragonard Room.

24)  Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Meeting, 1771, Oil on canvas, 318 x 215 cm, purchased fr J.P. Morgan, 1915, Fragonard Room.

25)  Photograph of J.P. Morgan.

26)  Raphael, The Colonna Altarpiece, 1504, Met, New York, oil and gold on wood, Main panel, overall, 172.4 x 172.4 cm, Gift of J.P. Morgan, 1916.

27)  Fontana Workshop, Majolica dish with Judgement of Paris, 1565-75, Gift of Dianne Dwyer Modestini in memory of Mario Modestini, 2008 Enamels Room.

[1] See The Frick Collection: A Guide to the Works of Art on Exhibition, 2008.
[2] “Studio of” on website, but att to Georges by Conisbee and co in George de La Tour and his World (Washington, 1996), no. 29; though in hindsight Wright’s attribution to Etienne, La Tour's son,  back in the 1960s seems a better call, ibid, 124.
[3] Jean Strouse, “J. P. Morgan: Financier and Collector”, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 57, no. 3, (Winter 2000), 41.
[4] On the Fragonard pictures and erotic decoration, see Mary D. Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism,  University of Chicago, 1990, 58f.


  1. Since my college days over 50 years ago the Frick has been my favorite museum for many of the reasons you mention. The Bellini St. Francis is magnificent and justifiably the popular favorite in the whole collection. On the other side of the room is the St. Jerome flanked on one side by the Thomas More you mention but on the other by Holbein's Thomas Cromwell, Henry's agent in the death of More. Frick must have had a sense of irony.

    By the way, Frick did have a personal tragedy in his life. A beloved daughter swallowed a pin that caused her premature death.


  2. Hi Frank,

    Good to hear from you.

    Thanks for those insights. I should have brought out the hidden currents of the Holbein portraits.

    I think a lot of people would say that the Frick provides one of the best viewing situations in the States. It's almost like that space is diametrically opposed to the big museums with their blockbusters and their crowds.



  3. Just because Frick was a beast to his workers and not very sensitive to his wife or surviving daughter, that does not mean he didn't have amazing taste in art and architecture.Or if the collection wasn't based on his taste alone, he must have listened carefully to scholarly advice. There are many works in the collection that stand out, but his Dutch works are sublime.

    1. I couldn't actually find out much about Frick's specific tastes, or his relationship with the dealers and cultural advisors. This marvelous collection must betray something of his personal preferences and tastes though.